For a party committed to localism, the Conservatives are getting remarkably good at prompting councils to follow their lead. Senior ministers – from David Cameron down – have made their opposition to new onshore turbines sparklingly clear in recent months. “We now have enough bill payer-funded onshore wind in the pipeline to meet our renewable energy commitments and there’s no requirement for any more,” said Michael Fallon, the energy minister, in April. Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, has set himself up as Lord of the Wind Farms, personally rejecting the vast majority of proposed schemes that have crossed his desk. Tory sources have let it be known that the Prime Minister is “of one mind” with the boisterous wind power opponents on his back benches, and is inclined to cut government support for onshore sites.
Today it emerges that the Government’s hostility to onshore wind farms – fanned by right-wing newspapers whose rural readers fear blighted views and, worse, blighted house prices – is beginning to influence the decisions made by local planning officials. In the first months of 2014, councils refused more than two-thirds of onshore wind farm plans in mainland Britain – double the proportion rejected in previous years.
Renewable energy campaigners blame the none-too-subtle mood music emanating from Tory Westminster (to their credit, the Liberal Democrats remain committed to wind power) for the change in approach. While the sincerely held objections of local residents must be taken seriously – and some ill-considered onshore schemes undoubtedly deserve to be turned down – the drift away from wind is of deep concern to anyone committed to weaning this country off fossil fuels.
All independent analyses of onshore wind reach the same conclusion – it is clean, relatively cheap (compared with other renewable sources), poses a minimal threat to wildlife, and should have a role to play in the UK’s future energy mix. No one is suggesting that developers are given carte blanche to erect turbines across areas of outstanding natural beauty. But any shift towards a blanket presumption against new schemes represents the triumph of Nimbyism over science, of politics over sober policy. It is no coincidence that Ukip vehemently opposes wind farms. Put simply, the Tories are blocking new sites to shore up their rural vote.
All forms of energy production have their downsides. Burning coal, oil and gas releases climate-altering carbon. Nuclear power generates nuclear waste. Tidal and wave schemes are opposed by many environmentalists because of their threat to wildlife. But Britain will need all of these energy sources in the coming decades if we are to keep the lights on and the air clean. It seems eccentric, to say the least, for George Osborne to trumpet a “dash for gas” and David Cameron to commit the country “all out” for shale, while effectively strangling a truly green energy source to suit the aesthetic preferences of their supporters.
That wind turbines are ugly has become an accepted truth of the onshore wind debate. One cannot doubt the sincerity of those who find them so. But should a judgement so subjective be allowed to drive policy on something so important as energy policy? Last year Dame Helen Ghosh, the newish director-general of the National Trust, dared to challenge this wisdom. “Personally, I think a wind turbine in the right place is a rather beautiful thing,” she told an interviewer. “If you think back to what the railways looked like to the 19th-century mind, I think we have to have our minds open to how the wind turbine will appear to us in 100 years.” She may well be right – but if the Tories have their way, the 2114 Britain may be a turbine-free zone.